Sport, Culture, and Identity: Seanad Public Consultation Committee on Constitutional Future of the Island of Ireland

Katie Liston, Joseph Maguire

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There are those on the island of Ireland for whom sport is central to their lives, whether as participants, spectators or club members, paid/unpaid administrators, coaches, and other officials. For them, sport (including play, leisure, and games) is a personal touchstone of identity, but this is also the case for communities and societal groups. Many believe intensely in the power of sport to change people’s lives for the better and we are learning more about the complex mechanisms involved. Sport, like other cultural activities, allows groups to build and maintain social capital. Much has been made of its role in subverting conflict, building bridges, and bolstering peace and reconciliation. But there many others too who are disinclined towards sport, who may dislike or even abhor it. For them sport is trivia - of far less importance than health, education, the welfare state, economy, and politics for instance. It has even been said that sport is and should be untouched by politics and other ideological considerations. Nevertheless, sport is inextricably bound up with all of these. This is borne out by the wealth of international research evidence since the 1960s. Precisely because of the well-established utility of sport, we believe that dialogues about the future of this island which omit sport are not only out of focus but, more importantly, they ignore an important cultural force. Thus, irrespective of where you place yourself on the sports continuum - from living and loving sport to being nonplussed or even detesting it - we believe that sport must be at the heart of all considerations about our shared constitutional future. It is not easy to predict how constitutional change might impact on sports governance, north and south, but it is reasonable to expect that unification might well push some post-partition anachronisms further away, enhancing the appeal of some sports to all communities and yet reinforcing more exclusive claims to identity and governance in others. Thus, we believe that without careful planning, many options for constitutional change would likely prove challenging and perhaps even divisive. In this regard, sport will be very important but cannot be expected to do ‘heavy lifting’ alone, especially around identity codes such as anthem, emblem, flag, club/stadium name and so on. In our submission, attached, we explore the utility of sport (past and present), the role of imagined communities and the complexities of north-south sports governance and relations (along six-, twenty-six or 32 county formats). We also signpost interim steps that we believe are needed to achieve a shared future and we highlight some challenges that we think are likely to arise. In doing so, we keep one eye on the past whose backdrop and legacy impacts on sporting life on the island today. Indeed, Irish Free State/Éire politicians, civil servants and Olympic Council officials grasped the unity of sport in building the nation in the twentieth century and the same challenge for public policy arises in planning for a new future Ireland. Importantly, we believe that a better understanding of our complex histories and of the changing meanings that are attached to national sports does not blind us to the future.
Original languageEnglish
TypeSeanad Public Consultation Committee
Media of outputSeanad Eireann
Number of pages5
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 31 Aug 2022


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